Swimming on Shabbat – Permitted or Forbidden?

A Litmus Test of Religiosity

Unfortunately, the question of whether or not it is halakhically permissible to swim on Shabbat has become yet another marker of one’s “frumkeit,” a basis upon which others may question their commitment to shemirat ha-mitzvot (the observance of the commandments). Like so many other humrot that have been contrived in the name of “custom,” this too has become a source of false religiosity and sinat hinam. Being explicitly permitted (given certain conditions) by the Talmud, the Rambam, and the Shulhan Arukh, those who declare it forbidden, whether they intend to or not, are essentially shaking their fingers condescendingly at Hazal and the Rishonim. Choosing to forbid what is permitted is just as detrimental as permitting the forbidden.

The Talmud Yerushalmi states in Masekhet Terumot (5:3):

TEXT

כשם שאסור לטהר את הטמא כך אסור לטמא את הטהור

TRANSLATION

“Just as it is forbidden to pronounce that which is impure to be pure, so also is it forbidden to pronounce that which is pure to be impure.”

The Sefer Ha-Tashbetz (siman 537) writes regarding this statement:

TEXT

כשם שאסור להתיר את האסור כך אסור לאסור את המותר

“Just as it is forbidden to permit the forbidden, so also is it forbidden to forbid the permitted.”

And this principle is affirmed by nearly all of the posekim, especially as concerns the determination of halakhah for the Jewish masses.

Swimming on Shabbath is Permitted

As it will be seen, swimming (under certain reasonable halakhic constraints and conditions) is permitted by the Gemara, codified by the Mishneh Torah, repeated by a plethora of Rishonim, and was even included in the Shulhan Arukh. With all due respect to kevodo ha-gaon ha-rav Feinstein z”l (and others – although Rav Feinstein is at least careful to note that me-ikkar ha-din swimming on Shabbath is mutar before stating that it is nevertheless the “custom” to forbid it), the apparent Ashkenazi standard of prohibiting the use of a pool on Shabbat – despite it being permitted explicitly by the sources – is dubious at best.

In the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam writes in Hilkhot Shabbat 23:5 –

TEXT

אין שטין על פני המים גזירה שמא יתקן חבית של שייטין: בריכה שבחצר מותר לשוט בה שאינו בא לעשות בה חבית של שייטין:  והוא שתהיה לה שפה מוקפת שלא ייעקר ממנה המים כדי שיהיה היכר והפרש בינה ובין הים

TRANSLATION

“We do not swim in [open, natural bodies of] water [on Shabbat]. This is a rabbinic decree lest one come to construct a barrel of reeds [i.e. for a flotation device]. A [man-made] pool inside of a courtyard is permissible to swim in as long as it has a lip surrounding it so that the water cannot run out of it [onto the ground around it], and in this way there will be a definite distinction between it and the sea.”

From here it clearly seen that it is indeed permissible to swim on Shabbath, provided that it is in a pool with a rim.

[See also Arokh HaShulhan, Hilkhot Shabbat, siman 339, se’if 4 for a fuller explanation of the halakhic difference between swimming in a river or lake and swimming in a pool.]

Halakhic Issues and Objections

Now, beside swimming itself there are several other issues raised by the occasion of swimming that carry with them some halakhic concerns, both regarding the laws of Shabbat and otherwise:

1. Swimming attire – In ancient times, swimming was done without a bathing suit. In other words, the one swimming would do so while nude. Therefore, this halakhah is likely dealing with such a scenario. Given the prohibition on kibbus (laundering), how can one wear an article of clothing while in the water, doesn’t this constitute kibbus?
2. Wet hair – We know that it is prohibited to wring out we things on Shabbath (sehitah as a derivative of the melakhah of dishah – “threshing”), so wouldn’t wringing out wet hair fall under this category?
3. Tzeniut (modesty) – Is mixed bathing/swimming permissible? Can one go to a public pool on Shabbat?
4. Heating water – Most pools are heated and heating water is forbidden on Shabbat so is it prohibited to swim in a modern “heated” pool on Shabbat?

The answers to these concerns are a bit complex, but I will attempt to answer them here as concisely as I can.

A. There are many issues with regard to kibbus that could be discussed, but essentially the question is: On Shabbat may one get clothing wet and, if so, for what purpose? A clean suit worn into clean water is not considered kibbus since essentially nothing really happens. As for drying, the second part of kibbus, since people do not seek to immediately dry their suits but instead remove them while still wet which means that there is no issue here either. As for wringing out a bathing suit – as long as it is made of synthetic materials (such as polyester or nylon) there is absolutely no issue since we have a principle of “אין דישה אלא בגידולי קרקע – there is no concern for [the melakhah of] dishah [threshing] except with articles made of [plant] materials that grow from the ground” (cf. b.Shabbat 75a et al). Therefore, there is no prohibition of squeezing synthetic materials (more on this in the next section). And even if one were to wear cotton while swimming, it would be fine as long as one does not wring them out or squeeze them – provided that the swimming suit is clean and the water is clean. (For those who object, ask yourself if it is permitted to remove wet cotton clothes when caught in the rain on Shabbat. It certainly is. The halakhah does not require people to stay in uncomfortable clothing on Shabbat or any other day.)

B. Pursuant to the previous section, wringing out wet hair does not present a halakhic issue either. It states explicitly in Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Shabbat 9:11) that there is no prohibition of “squeezing” or “wringing” (sehitah) with regard to hair or leather. There are those who maintain that the Rambam means to say that there is no issur of sehitah min ha-Torah, but that a mi-divrehem (rabbinic) prohibition still applies. This understanding of the Rambam, however, is incorrect, as is explained by the pirush of Rav Yosef Qafih z”l (there, #32). Thus, the hair or beard may be squeezed and wrung out on Shabbath without any concern at all, as can a swimsuit made of synthetic material (or one made of goat hair, but I haven’t seen any swimsuits like that yet!)

C. Mixed swimming is permissible since it occurs in context. Immediate family swimming together while clothed is perfectly fine. This may be derived from the laws permitting even kiruv basar while sleeping between nuclear family members in the same bed of the opposite gender. Once the child has shame, clothing or a blanket to separate between skin and skin is required. Swimming together while clothed in a private pool (without other, unrelated people) should be fine, and the small children who are still toddlers and unaware of their own bodies could swim in any bathing suit or even without clothing if necessary. [See MT Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 21:6-7, et al]. Also, going to a public pool may also be fine if one is accustomed to seeing people in bathing suits since this too occurs in context. If, however, someone finds that they are too distracted while in such a context then they may abstain from it. However, this does not change the permissibility of swimming in a public context for those to whom it does not present a problem provided, of course, that all other rules of decorum are maintained.

D. The prohibition to heat water on Shabbat is only in regard to the temperature of yad soledet bo (around 110 F). Thus, a warmed pool is not an issue. [See Arokh HaShulhan, Hilkhot Shabbat, siman 326 , se’if 3]

Swimming: Not in the “Spirit of Shabbath”?

There are many today who claim that swimming is not in the “spirit” of Shabbat. However, we must ask ourselves what it is that determines the “spirit” of any mitzvah. Is it the halakhah or how we feel? It seems that Hazal felt that the “spirit” of Shabbat is determined by the halakhah – i.e. through abstention from doing melakhah, refraining from discussion of melakhot, and through not doing things that may lead to melakhot. Swimming (within the guidelines set by Hazal) does not fit any of those descriptions. Instead, it seems that taking a permissible “dip” on the seventh day may actually fall into the category of oneg Shabbat (“Sabbath pleasure” – this view is expressed by Rav Yitzhak Abadi shlit”a, and may be found on his website kashrut.org).

The fact is that a great many Haredi-Hasidic Jews frequent heated mikvaot on Shabbat without even giving it a second thought. There is little or no practical difference between swimming and going to a mikveh, but feel free to present this point to Haredi or Hasidic Jews – it can be amusing to listen to their attempt to justify themselves.

Sadly, I have personally heard condemnations of religiously orthodox Jews by Haredi and Hasidic leaders sounded from the bimah simply because they choose to swim on Shabbat. Such people were described as “bodies without souls” and “destined for the dustbin of history” etc. simply because they choose to relax in such a [permissible] way on the seventh day. Such sentiments are pure sinat hinam, i.e. “hating” someone as if they are an open sinner when in fact they are not. The truth is, if someone doesn’t want to swim on Shabbat – despite it being explicitly permitted – then they should not swim. To put it another way: If you don’t like mayonnaise, then don’t spread it on your sandwich, but leave the jar out for those of us who want to.

[A helpful teshuvah on this subject by Rav Ratson `Arussi shlit”a – containing much of what has been explained here – may be found here.]

 

Parashat Vayetze: HaMakom – God’s Place or the Place of God?

From Parashat Vayetze arises the source for the well-known title for God Ha-Makom (“The Place”).  This title is traditionally used in the Haggadah Shela-Pesah and is sometimes translated into English as “the Omnipresent.” But how does the Hebrew phrase “the place” give rise to the concept of omnipresence?

The popular teachings of the Kabbalah and Hasidism have postulated that HaMakom is a veiled reference to Panentheism and the central Lurianic doctrine known as “tzimtzum” (i.e. that God somehow made a “void” in the midst of himself into which he placed the created universe). This idea, of course, is completely without basis within the teachings of Hazal and its explanation entails the setting aside of several tenets of Judaism and principles of pure monotheism. This misunderstanding of the meaning of HaMakom is based on a passage from the Midrash Rabbah that says “He is the place of the world, but the world is not His place” (Bereshit Rabbah 68,10). But does this passage really support a panentheistic view of God and creation?

On the surface, it really does seem to. However, there are many places where the exponents of the Kabbalah take passages of the Torah, Na”Kh, talmud, and midrashim out of context and re-interpret them to their own ends. One example is that of Iyov 31:2 which refers to “a portion of God above.” The kabbalists (and subsequently the leaders of Hasidism) made the bold claim that this “portion of God” being referred to is the soul which is actually composed of God Himself (and specifically the highest level of the soul known as yehidah – taken from yet another passage of the midrash which lists five names of the soul in the Tanakh). However, when the passage is looked at in context, we see that it has absolutely nothing to do with the human soul. The passage in its context reads:

בְּרִית כָּרַתִּי לְעֵינָי וּמָה אֶתְבּוֹנֵן עַל בְּתוּלָה. וּמֶה חֵלֶק אֱלוֹהַּ מִמָּעַל וְנַחֲלַת שַׁדַּי מִמְּרֹמִים? הֲלֹא אֵיד לְעַוָּל וְנֵכֶר לְפֹעֲלֵי אָוֶן? הֲלֹאהוּא יִרְאֶה דְרָכָי וְכָל צְעָדַי יִסְפּוֹר?

TRANSLATION:

“I have made a covenant with my eyes, how can I then look upon a virgin? And what will be my portion of God above, the inheritance of the Almighty from on high? Is it not misfortune to the unjust and disaster to the doers of iniquity? Does He not see my ways and count all of my steps?” (Iyov 31:1-4)

This passage has nothing to do with souls, pieces of God, or the Kabbalah. Rather, it is Iyov’s acknowledgment of God’s punishment of the wicked, a punishment which he would “inherit” if he should act wickedly in his life.

The contention that this passage from the Midrash Rabbah somehow supports a panentheistic view of God is similarly contrived, as we will see. However, upon a closer look at the entire passage, it becomes clear what the intention of Hazal was when they constructed this instructive allegory.

BERESHIT RABBAH 68:10 –

BR 68-10a

BR 68-10b

TRANSLATION:

And [Ya`akov] reached the place – Rav Huna said in the name of Rabbi Ammi, For what reason do we use a kinnui for the name of the Holy One Blessed is He, calling him Makom [“Place”]? Because while He is the place of the world, the world is not His place – from what is written (Shemot 32) ‘Behold, [there is] a place with Me…’ So, the Holy One Blessed is He is the place of the world, and the world is not His place.’

Rabbi Yitzhak said, ‘It is written (Devarim 32) – The Eternal God is a dwelling-place.[i] We do not know if The Holy One Blessed is He is the dwelling-place of the world or if His world is His dwelling-place. [The matter is clarified] from what is written (Tehillim 90), ‘Adhonoy, You are a dwelling-place…’ So, The Holy One Blessed is He is the dwelling-place of the world and His world is not His dwelling-place.’

Rav Abba bar Yudan said, ‘[This may be compared] to a soldier who is riding on a horse and his weaponry draped on either side. The horse is secondary to the rider, the rider is not secondary to the horse, as it says (Havakuk 3), ‘For you ride upon Your horses.'”

________________

[i] “Ma`onah Elohei Kedem – מענה אלהי קדם” can apparently be understood as either “A dwelling-place [for] the Eternal God” or “The Eternal God is a dwelling-place.” And the word translated “dwelling-place” does not just indicate a place to exist, but a “refuge” or “abode.”

We can already see that the simplistic quotation of the phrase “He is the place of the world” does not carry with it the panentheistic meaning that has been attributed to it. In fact, such a reading should be clearly undermined by the second part of the statement, which says, “…the world is not his place” since Panentheism maintains the very real immanence of God throughout the entire world.

The commentaries below the text are divided with one giving the standard kabbalistic notions and the other, the Matanot Kehunah, gives a simpler approach, even relating a portion of it to the version found in the Talmud Yerushalmi.

MATANOT KEHUNAH – BERESHIT RABBAH 68:10 –

Matanoth Kehunah - BR 68-10

TRANSLATION:

“The girsa in the Yalkut reads: ‘…and His world is not His place. Rabbi Yossi ben Halafta said: We do not know if The Holy One Blessed is He is the place of the world or if the world is His place.’ From what is written etc. – That is to say, from what is written ‘Behold, there is a dwelling-place with Me’ it is inferred that the place [being referred to] is located ‘with Him’ and not that He is in the place [referred to]. Who is riding etc. – It is a remez that hollow spaces of the world and everything that they contain are secondary to Him. And in the Yerushalmi it reads: ‘The horse does not whip the soldier, rather the soldier whips the horse.’ “

It is abundantly clear that this midrashic passage was meant to communicate something other than Panentheism and perhaps even its opposite, i.e. that we should not think that the name HaMakom indicates that HaShem is within physical space (which is not possible because, as the Rambam clearly writes אינו גוף ולא כח בגוף), but rather that everything is secondary to him and that he is metaphrically our dwelling-place of refuge. We turn to God in times of difficulty because the entire world is subject to him and we turn to him in times of happiness and blessing for the same reason. There are many passukim in the Tanakh that communicate this same idea:

  • Tehillim 91:1-4
  • Tehillim 46:1-12
  • Tehillim 18:1-7
  • Devarim 33:27
  • Mishlei 14:26
  • Mishlei 18:10
  • Yesha`yahu 25:1-4
  • Yerimiyahu 16:19
  • and others…

Like a horse is ridden and steered by its rider, HaShem “rides” on the world in complete domination of it, steering it and whipping it in direction of his will. He does not dwell within the world, being somehow contained in it, but rather the world exists within space and is limited by the will of HaShem. If we think about it, all the names we use for God – both of Biblical and Rabbinic origin – are meant to communicate the ultimate position, power, and authority of HaShem. None of them refer to where he supposedly is located since “location” – like color, smell, or body parts – simply have no relevance to him, the Supreme Master of everything.

This message is as pertinent today as it was in the ancient world. No matter how advanced we get as a species, we still cannot escape the primitive pitfalls of attributing physical limitations or properties to the One Transcendent Creator of the universe, may he be blessed.

During Pesah we think of Him as HaMakom – the master of the world who bent all the forces of nature to our benefit and programmed the miracles of the exodus into the world from the six days of creation.

UPDATE: There entire concept of God occupying physical space, or having any category of spatial reference apply to him was completely rejected by pure Judaic monotheism. Most traditional commentators on the Humash at Bereshit 28:11 completely ignore the reference to ha-makom as explained by the midrashic passage noted above. Instead, the usual interpretation presents the words vayifga ba-makom as a reference to something other than a name of God. I have presented the commentary of each one below in a very abbreviated fashion to illustrate this point.

  • Rav Saadia Gaon understands vayifga ba-makom as a reference to that particular location, not God.
  • Rashi understands ba-makom as referring to an actual place and not as a name for God. He interprets vayifga, like the Midrash, as a veiled reference to Yaakov praying and thereby instituting Arvit, the evening prayer. Makom is viewed here as referring to God (i.e. he approached God in prayer), but it is not explained according to Panentheism.
  • The Baal HaTurim sees the three mentions of the word makom as a hint (remez) pointing toward the three pilgrimage festivals to be instituted later on that specific location (i.e. Mount Moriah).
  • Sforno breaks apart vayifga ba-makom into two phrases: vayifga, which indicates that Yaakov did not intend to necessarily end up there, and ba-makom which supposedly alludes to rest stops that were commonly on the roads between cities in ancient times.
  • Daat Zekenim views the language vayifga ba-makom as a reference to the evening prayer, much like Rashi.
  • Rashbam simply states that vayifga ba-makom means that Yaakov happened to reach a location outside the city of Loz.
  • The Kli Yakar cites various sayings of Hazal to the effect that vayifga ba-makom refers to Yaakov reaching a special place which would in the future become the site of the Beit HaMikdash and the source of blessing for the entire world. He further explained that vayifga ba-makom is a certain reference to prayer and the institution of Arvit.
  • The Ohr HaHayim explicitly says that the peshuto shel-mikra is that vayifga ba-makom refers to a certain place for Yaakov to dwell. He then proceeds to explain that the equation of the makom mentioned in the verse with Mount Moriah does not present a contradiction.

None of these explain “Makom” as a special name of God indicating his immanence in all of creation. Those that seem to uphold the reading of “Makom” as a reference to God, do so only in an ancillary sense with regard to their reading of vayifga ba-makom as an indication of prayer by Yaakov. It can only be assumed that they understood “Makom” as properly explained by the Midrash Rabbah: an indicator of God’s supreme rule in every location, and not as an allusion to Panentheism.

In fact, the Ibn Ezra explicitly rejects such an interpretation of vayifga ba-makom and instructs the reader to ignore midrashic methods of expounding Bereshit 28:11. After giving the peshat of the verse he says,

“…we do not find anywhere in the Scripture that HaShem is called ‘Makom,’ and do not pay any attention to derash. [For if this were so, then the phrase in Megillat Esther 4:14] ‘mi-makom aher – from another place’ [would be problematic]. But [this reference, i.e. in the Megillah] has nothing to do with HaShem.”

Lastly, Rav Saadia Gaon, in a passage from his famous “Beliefs and Opinions” (HaNivhar Emunot Ve-Deot, I:11) says the following:

“And I say concerning the concept of place* (ha-makom) that it cannot be that the Creator needs a place that he might be in it, and this is so for many reasons. First, because he is the Creator of all place and also because he alone is The Pre-Existent One (ha-kadmon) even before there existed any place, and his creation of place did not affect any change in him. And further because that which needs a place is the body* that fills every [space] that meets it and comes into contact with it, and it will be that each one of these things in contact with one another is a place for the other – and such cannot be so for the Creator. And that which is said by the prophets that he is ‘in heaven’ [is not literal], but is a way of communicating greatness and exaltedness because from our perspective the heaven are higher than anything else known to us, just as it is explained by Scripture, ‘For God is in heaven and you are upon the earth’ (Kohelet 5:1), and “for the heavens and the heavens of heavens cannot contain you’ (I Melakhim 8:27). And this was also the meaning of their statements to the effect that he dwells in the Beit HaMikdash, ‘and I will dwell among the children of Israel’ (Shemot 28:45), and ‘HaShem dwells in Tzion’ (Yoel 4:21) – all of this is to confer honor upon that place and upon that nation. And in addition to this, he already displayed there his created brightness/light, which we mentioned above is referred to as shekhinah and kavod.”

May we all diligently negate all physical reference or category from the one transcendent blessed God – to whom neither space, time, motion, or physical qualities whatsoever have any relevance. Amen, selah.

Being Mekori – “Is there a halakhic imperative for one to make a living?”

One of my goals in this series – and indeed one of the goals that inspires many who end up on the path of mekoriut – is to demonstrate that an honest and simple return to the sources (particularly in a way that is unaffected by the Zohar, Kabbalah, and later Hasidic theology) will ultimately solve many of the social and religious ills that have cropped up during the current exile. Poverty, entitlement, sectarianism, ethnocentrism, sexual abuse, women’s issues, the divorce rate, etc. – I firmly believe that all, or nearly all, could be largely avoided or overturned through a return to the sources and a submission to the unique authority of Hazal. Such a return is in opposition to the widespread hashkafah that the rabbis of our time (other than being effected by a supposed “yeridas ha-doros” common to all Jews) are essentially an extension and continuation of Hazal. I do not intend by this statement to assert that mekoriut can or will bring about a Utopian Jewish ideal – it will not. There are no utopias, not even during the yemot mashiah, but we can discuss that another time. All I mean to say is that a return to our original texts is a return to original Jewish values.

One such social problem in the Jewish community is the development of a mass reliance on public charity and state-sponsored welfare, such that it has become almost standard among Haredi-Hasidic Jewry. The system of kollels, yeshivoth, and other institutions today within [mainly] Haredi-Hasidic circles utilize certain latter-day “heterim” that supposedly allow one to make his living from the full-time study of Torah, a notion that was roundly condemned by Hazal during much more difficult times than our own. In fact, even when the Torah was almost lost, Hazal – in their great wisdom – never, ever, resorted to supporting full-time learners and their families with public charity as a “solution” (instead, they viewed the committal of Torah she-be`al Peh to writing as solution enough). They never considered such a course of action because they knew exactly where such a course would lead and what kind of Jew this type of “solution” produces, as will be seen in the passages cited below.

The news of this phenomenon – the phenomenon of a refusal to be productive citizens by an overwhelming number of religious Jews – has spread to nearly all parts of the Jewish world, including the US, Canada, Europe, and Israel. And the non-Jewish world has naturally sat up and taken notice, making [understandably] negative comments that have made their way even into the mainstream news media. This should concern us and, in my opinion, we as Jews should take responsibility for such aspects that contribute to the irrational fire of anti-Semitism.

There is a (seemingly) little-known halakhah in the Mishneh Torah which leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination of whether or not it is either desirable or permitted to make a living from learning Torah.

The Rambam writes the following in Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:10 –

“Everyone who determines in his heart that he will be occupied with learning Torah and will not engage in labor, and therefore sustain himself from public charity – behold, such a one profanes the Divine Name, denigrates the Torah, extinguishes the lamp of the Jewish religion, brings evil upon himself, and removes his life from `olam haba because it is forbidden to benefit [monetarily] from the words of the Torah in this world. The Sages said, “Everyone who derives [monetary] benefit from the words of the Torah removes his life from the world [to come].” They further commanded and said, “Don’t make them [the words of the Torah] into a crown to make yourself great with them, nor a spade with which to till the ground.” They further commanded and said, “Love engaging in labor and hate the service of being a public rav. And all study of Torah that is not accompanied by engaging in labor, in the end it is worthless and the one who engages in such [exclusive Torah study] will in the end become one who steals from his fellow creatures.”

Now, to be sure, nearly everyone needs financial help (i.e. hesedh and ssedaqah) at certain times throughout their life, and to varying degrees – and this is why the Torah commands us to be open-handed toward our brothers and to care for the poorer segments in Jewish society (e.g. orphans, widows, and converts). To do so is certainly a misswah. However, the Rambam writes in the next halakhah (3:11) that

It is a great virtue for one to be sustained through the work of his own hands, and to do so was a character trait of the ancient devoted ones (the “hasidim rishonim“, a group often mentioned in the Mishnah for their particular piety and devotion to God). And in doing so, one will merit all of the honor and goodness that is available in this world and in olam haba. As it says, ‘When you eat from the labor of your hands, you will be contented and it will be good for you’ (Tehillim 128:2) – ‘contented’ in this world, ‘good for you’ stored for olam haba which is entirely good.”

Hilkhot Edut 10:14 further explains that making a living from playing dice – or apparently from any other form of non-labor – is called avak gezel (“dust/trace of theft,” a phrase meaning, “not technically theft, but it might as well be”). In addition, it invalidates someone as being a reliable witness in a beit din.

Hilkhot Aniyim 10:18 further says:

“A person should always push himself and exist in painful difficulty rather than cast himself on the mercy of the community. Thus the Sages commanded and said, “Make your Shabbath like a weekday and do not demand your needs from your fellow creatures. Even if a poor person is a greatly honored hakham, he should sustain himself through a trade, even if it is a miserable one, and not demand his needs from his fellow creatures. It is better for a person to spread out the tanned skins of neveloth in the shuq rather than saying to the people, ‘I am a hakham, I am a great person, I am a kohen, so support me.’ And in this matter the Sages commanded us to do thus. Even the greatest of the hakhamiym were woodchoppers, carriers of building materials, water drawers for use in vegetable gardens, smelters of iron and producers of charcoal, and they did not ask for charity from the community, nor would they accept gifts from the community even while serving the community.”

There can be no doubt that there is certainly a halakhic directive for a person to make a living to support himself.

It should be noted, however, that these injunctions do not necessarily apply to a modern community rabbi. Community rabbis are paid for their time spent functioning in a pastoral capacity. He is not paid to learn Torah, but rather for his visits, availability, organization, etc. This is a newer community structure of more recent invention. However, le-aniyut da`ati, I think that it is always better for even a community rav to have a worldly occupation, as it lends itself to a higher level of integrity since he may speak his mind freely within his community without fear of economic reprisal by community members. This was the model of Yemen and other non-European communities, where rabbanim were engaged in artisanship, agriculture, commerce, et al while serving as leaders. However, due to the circumstances involved in the modern pace of life and the commensurate needs of religious Jews, a community rabbi supporting themselves is often not possible.

So, what would a practical return to the sources entail? First and foremost it would mean a public teshuvah by those leaders that currently support the welfare-based system of “learners.” I personally think that such a prospect is unlikely to happen, as this entitled way of thinking is ingrained so deeply within the minds of many, being further validated by their leadership and a plethora or “gedolim.” However, on a grass-roots level, it would mean that people begin to encourage religious Jewish youth to learn Torah seriously in a yeshivah, but then to prepare for marriage and family by acquiring higher education or a trade of some sort. Jewish youth should be encouraged to do well in their chosen profession(s) – all the while being told that working to provide for one’s own needs and those of his family is a great mitzvah that has no shame attached to it. Shame should instead be attached to willingly living off of public welfare or the largess of others.

I have seen advertisements for yeshivot that teach trades, but they are largely seen as options for those young men who are in danger of “going off.” Many young men from these groundbreaking institutions end up apprenticing within the trades or starting their own businesses. If we want true change, then places like these need to be seen as le-khatehilah and not bedi`avad.

The effects of such changes over time would arguably be transforming, and could eventually bring about an almost complete metamorphosis in the Torah world. The depression and alienation that arises due to a culture of elite “learners” would be all but undone, an emphasis on middot and respect for the Torah would return, financial crises would be ameliorated, marriages would be strengthened, broken marriages could be healed, and a general simhat ha-hayim would return. As it says in Kohelet 2:24-26

There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and cause his soul to have goodness from his labor. This, too, I have seen, that it is from the hand of God. For who will eat and who will enjoy, if not I? For to a man that is good before Him, [God] has given wisdom and understanding and joy, but to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting in order to give it to the one who is good before God. This is also vanity and striving after the wind.”

May HaShem help us to return to the simple truths of Jewish faith, once safeguarded to His people by Hazal.

The Kashruth of Knives: An Amazing Mekori Perspective from Rav Yosef Qafih z”l

I have been studying the laws of kashrut as formulated by the Rambam in Hilkhot Ma’akhalot Assurot (Laws of Forbidden Foods) lately, and more in-depth than I ever have previously. Along the way, I have examined several elements of kashruth – particularly with regard to the status of kelim – that have bothered me for a while as either being unreasonable or illogical – i.e. out of step with visible and perceptible reality. One such subject is the kashrut of knives.

I have heard from various rabbis and mashgihim that knives which have been used to cut meat at any time, if they are used to cut an onion (a possible example of a davar harif – “sharp thing”) – EVEN IF THEY ARE CLEAN AND ARE COLD – the cut onion thereby “absorbs” the residue/taste of meat that are supposedly absorbed into the blade of the knife. As a result, according to those who maintain that this actually happens, the cut onion may thus not be eaten with dairy because it has now become “meaty.” This idea implies that there are invisible meat substances that we cannot perceive but are still there, and which present a problem halakhically. But as I reflected on this, it appears to fly in the face of other areas of kashrut where we rely on a principle of shalta be-`eina (“what is visible to the naked eye”). For instance, when it comes to insects on food, those which cannot be seen by the naked eye are halakhically insignificant, otherwise any microscope would no doubt reveal microscopic mites that feature on many things we are in daily contact with – even our own bodies. And if such a thing can be said about a bug – which is potentially forbidden de-oraitha – how can it not be said about supposedly invisible meat residue which is only forbidden de-rabbanan? I have suspected for a long time that there must be something lost in translation or a misunderstanding of Hazal in regard to knives.

My suspicions were delightfully confirmed upon reading the pirush of Rav Yosef Qafih (“Mori Yusef”) z”l on the Mishneh Torah. The following is my translation of a comment on Hilkhot Ma’akhalot Assurot 9:24. In it, Rav Qafih explains these laws from a sensible and reality-based perspective, one which brings the kashrut of knives and food cut by them back down to earth. Please note that all bolding, italics, bracketing, and underlining is for emphasis and is not in the original passage(s).

HALAKHAH

סכין שחתך בה בשר צלי וחזר וחתך בה צנון וכיוצא בו מדברים חריפין אסור לאוכלן בכותח אבל אם חתך בה קישות או אבטיח גורד מקום החתך ואוכל השאר בחלב

“A knife that was used to cut roasted meat, and it was then used again to cut ssenon [radish] – or things like it from the category of ‘sharp’ things – it is forbidden to eat them [i.e. the ssenon and similar things] with kutah [a thick dairy dip]. But if he used it afterward to cut kishut or avatiyah [types of melon], he scrapes the place where it was cut and he may then eat the rest with dairy.”

COMMENTARY

[30] In Hullin 111b, Hizkiyah says in the name of Abbaye, “Hilkhata [the final ruling is]… tzenon that one cut with a knife with which he cut meat – it is forbidden to eat it with kutah, and these things were said about tzenon since it, on account of its sharpness, will absorb, but with kishut he scrapes the place where it was cut and eats it [with kutah].” Behold, in the Gemara a knife used to cut roasted meat is not specifically mentioned, but only meat generally, and so it appears that Rabbenu [Rambam] is of the opinion that duhka (“pressing”) and harifuta (“sharpness”) never cause kelim to either give taste or absorb. And therefore, he adds “roasted meat” because by cutting roasted meat it will have lots of visible fat on it, and even though the following is not a formal proof of the matter, there is nevertheless an indication of this fact in what is brought in Beyssah 16a: “Rabbi Yisshaq says… the fat which is congealed on the surface of a knife, we scrape it off and rely on it for an eruv tavshilin.” And Rabbenu writes in Hilkhot Shevitat Yom Tov 6,4: “Even the fat that is congealed on the surface of the kind of knife that we use to cut roasted meat, it may be scraped together and if it contains the volume of an olive etc.” We see that according to Rabbenu a knife that we use to cut roasted meat usually has on it a thick layer of visibly congealed fat, such as that we can scrape from it an olive’s bulk. And therefore what is forbidden regarding ssenon is that, due to it’s sharpness, it will absorb the fat that is visible. This is not the case for something that is not sharp, since it merely wipes the fat off from the surface of the knife when it is cut and thus it is only necessary to scrape the fat from the place where it was cut. And in the printed edition, the redactors did not understand this emphasis of Rabbenu, namely that this halakhah deals specifically with a knife used to cut roasted meat, so they added the phrase “but if it was used to cut meat and then used again to cut kishut,” but this is not in the original handwritten manuscripts.

The Kesef Mishneh [written by Rav Yosef Qaro] writes here:

“In the chapter of Hullin entitled ‘Kol HaBasar‘ [page 112]: ‘Hizkiyah says in the name of Abbaye… ssenon that one cut with a knife with which he cut meat – it is forbidden to eat it with kutah, and these things were said about ssenon since it, on account of its sharpness, will absorb, but with kishut he scrapes the place where it was cut and eats it [with kutah]. Turnip stalks are permitted, but those of beets are forbidden. However, if he began by cutting a turnip and then proceeded to cut a beet stalk, then the beet stalks are permitted [to be eaten with kutah].’ And Rashi explains this passage as follows: ‘Even though it has been established for us that na”t bar na”t (i.e. transferred taste that is second-hand) is permitted, it is a different case to consider a knife that sometimes has congealed fat on it but is not recognizable as such. And when it cuts the tzenon, the na”t will come from the actual substance [i.e. it will be firsthand – na”t – and not second-hand – na”t bar na”t]. And further, due to its sharpness, it will absorb more that does boiled fish, and through the pressure exerted on the knife [duhka de-sakina], the knife will give taste and the tzenon will absorb it.’ And the Rashba writes: ‘The Rif did not write in the Halakhot regarding either turnip stalks or beet stalks, and neither did he include the statement that if one cut turnip stalks before he cut beet stalks, then the beet stalks [although sharp] are permitted [to be eaten with kutah]. Also the Rambam deleted it, and I have no idea why they both did so.’ And I maintain that Rabbenu, even though he did not write them explicitly, nevertheless they are included in his words in accordance with his explanation of the Gemara, for behold he wrote from ‘A knife that was used to cut roasted meat, and it was then used again…’ until ‘…he may then eat the rest with dairy.’ It appears that he is explaining that tzenon is lav davka [not specific, i.e. it could also something else similar to tzenon] since this is the rule for all sharp things, and it appears that he is also explaining that turnips are lav davka as well since this is the rule if one were to first cut bread or some other vegetable or fruit – because the prohibition to cut ssenon with such a knife is for no other reason than the congealed fat on its surface which strongly adheres to something sharp. So when that knife is first used to cut bread or any other thing, behold the knife is wiped clean thereby and no fat remains on its surface – so it is therefore permitted thereafter to cut tzenon with that knife. And now everything the Rabbenu states here is made clear, for from what he writes that ‘a knife that was used to cut roasted meat, and it was then used again to cut tzenon’ it is implied that what he means is: when a knife was used to cut the meat and then it was to cut ssenon without cutting anything else in between them and because of this lack of interruption it is forbidden. And since if he cuts something else between them it is thus permitted [!!!], there was no need for him to include the statement that ‘if he began by cutting a turnip and then proceeded to cut a beet stalk, then the beet stalks are permitted.’

And in regard to his statement that the knife was used to cut “roasted meat” being also lav davka since it is the same rule for meat that is either being cooked or boiled (however, there is room to say that he does specifically mean roasting meat like we said above because the fat of cooked meat is dissolved into the water and it does not congeal in a thick layer on the surface of the knife).  And he did not employ the phraseology of “meat” by itself in order to teach us that the cutting of boiled meat is what we are discussing here, but with regard to cold meat the fat does not congeal on the surface of the knife to the point that it would be forbidden to cut tzenon with it [!!!]. And it is not necessary to write about beets since they are included in what he writes “or things like it from the category of ‘sharp’ things.” And for this reason it is also not necessary to write “turnip stalks are permitted” since turnips are not in “the category of ‘sharp’ things.” And in this way it is possible to reconcile the summation of the Rif and it appears to me that it would be difficult to do so if their text of the Gemara was like ours, but it is already possible – even without this issue – that these words [i.e. regarding turnips and beet stalks] were not written in their versions of the Gemara [and therefore they did not write them down]…

This is nothing short of AMAZING! The implications of this beautiful and cogent explanation of the halakhah are apparent to anyone who is familiar with the traditional understanding of these laws. Basically, Rav Qafih is saying here that only visible, actual fat adhering to the blade is of halakhic concern – no invisible, lurking fat that is somehow [invisibly] “possessing” our kitchen cutlery to worry about!

Please let me know your thoughts and comments on this. This understanding completely revolutionized my understanding of kashruth in general and that of knives specifically.

 

Becoming Mekori – Stones in the Path – Part I: The Illiterate Law Student

One of the many problems that often arises among those who decide to join the Mekori movement, is that of Jewish illiteracy. People who can neither read nor understand Hebrew – who are many times unable to even recognize words without them being transliterated into English characters – decide to brazenly throw off all rabbinic guidance, and become determined instead to pursue a path where they interpret Jewish law as they see fit. Armed with Artscroll translations of the Gemara, the Touger English edition of the Mishneh Torah, and a Stone Chumash they decide to take on the entire world of orthodox Judaism.

Now, to be sure – as I explained in my initial post on mekoriut – the majority of people who join the movement do so because of personal trauma they have suffered while in the Haredi or Hasidic community. Thus, many of those who make this poor decision are doing so out of a feeling of desperation and an understandably diminished trust in the rabbinic establishment. But many of them struggle with a different problem: arrogance coupled with a refusal to rely on or take direction from anyone. Hazal tell us that one who is arrogant cannot learn Torah. They also tell us that an ignorant person cannot be properly religious – making this dreadful combination an almost certain recipe for failure. The reality is, however, that many people are simply afraid to admit how little they can actually read/interact with the sources, if at all.

Now, please understand that in this post I am attempting to point out a commonly observed pitfall with being/becoming Mekori. I truly do have compassion for such individuals, but I feel it is necessary to honestly and openly address the issue.

Most often, those who choose to act this way simply have a basic misunderstanding of what being Mekori means. Mekoriut is not akin to Karaism. Being Mekori is not opting for a “do-it-yourself” Judaism where the individual becomes the rabbinic authority. It is a submission to HaShem, His Torah, and to those whom possessed Biblical halakhic authority (cf. Devarim 17:11) – Hazal. In fact, the Mekori movement exists precisely because we do not believe that any one individual can simply change or alter the law at will – and this certainly includes those who are religiously illiterate.

Many of these types of individuals learn just enough to be dangerous. I once knew someone who learned what a qal wa-homer argument was and proceeded to just simply apply it independently across Jewish law in accordance with what made sense to his limited understanding. By misapplying this singular piece of halakhic reasoning, he proceeding to redefine many fundamental elements of halakhah and committed serious violations of Shabbath, etc. Ultimately, this exercise ended in failure and was a disaster for his family. His situation, however, was not due to the Mekori movement. It was due directly to his inability to admit his own level of learning coupled with a refusal to fulfill the directive: aseh lekha rav va-histalek min ha-safek – appoint for yourself a rav and remove yourself from doubt” (Avot 1:16).

Respecting and accepting competent rabbinic guidance is not only correct halakhically, but is smart as well. If a person truly desires to carry out the will of HaShem, then he or she will seek out a qualified person to help them do so. But if a person is really just seeking to do his or her own will, then any answer – even a bad one – will be acceptable to them as long as it allows the person to do what they desire without inhibition. This is something that every religious Jew must guard against.

Lastly, this kind of attitude defies the very nature of education. In order for someone to enter a profession or be considered capable of something, they must first submit themselves to proper education and training. A person cannot become a doctor without medical school, and certainly not if he has not familiarized himself with anatomy and the functions of the body’s various systems. The pursuit of halakhic knowledge is no different. Learning Hebrew is a must, as is familiarity with basic halakhic principles, and the ability to independently access the general breadth of halakhic texts – all the while conferring with and relying on a competent rabbinic expert or group of experts. There is simply no other way to succeed.

But doing this takes work. There are no shortcuts to the goal. And if someone is beginning with little prior knowledge, then he must humble himself and learn from those more experienced than him. As Hazal teach us “Im ein derekh eretz ein torah.”

In conclusion, I would like to share a personal story. One of my rabbinic guides is Rav Ratzon Arussi, chief rabbi of Kiryat Ono, Israel and head of Makhon Mosheh (www.net-sah.org). He is the chief student and practical successor of the late Mori Yusef Qafih z”l. When I lived in Israel, I had the pleasure of meeting privately with him on several occasions at his office in Kiryat Ono, during which times I was granted the privilege of asking his personal advice on several matters related to my family and Jewish life in general.

On one occasion, I arranged a meeting with him about registering my children in a particular school, among other things. On the application form I was asked to list our family’s “rav ha-posek” and, having not yet formally asked Rav Arussi if he could function that way for our family, I decided to ask him in person out of respect. The conversation began as follows:

Rav Arussi: How can I help you?

Me: I listed the rabbi’s name on the enrollment form for our children as our “rav ha-posek” and I would like to know if it is possible to be the rabbi’s student in a formal sense.

Rav Arussi: My student? You and I are the same. We are both students of the Rambam. But if you need something, I am here for you.

The conversation continued in a similar vein, but this was the main point that I wanted to share.

Out of his great humility, Rav Arussi (may he live and be well) expressed to me that both him and I are ultimately in the same position – we are both students of halakhah. The difference between us consists of education and experience, both of which he made fully available to me as a fellow Jew in search of the service of the Creator. No hasidic “deveikus,” no viewing himself as a “gadol,” and no conditions of obedience or allegiance to him. Only the open humility and willingness to share with me the Torah that he had learned. It was so beautiful, I was stunned.

If only more rabbinic personalities viewed themselves with such humility! Then perhaps people would feel more comfortable submitting themselves to their learning and guidance! I say this with a heavy heart.

I was told something similar by another one of my friends and rabbinic guides, Rabbi David Bar Hayim of Machon Shilo at the outset of our relationship. Having had this very inspiring and humble conversation with Rav Arussi, I decided to see what his response would be – and he did not disappoint. His response to me was:

“Learning Torah is not a fan club or a popularity contest. Whether or not you, or anyone else, seeks halakhic guidance from me is completely up to them. After all, it says ‘appoint for yourself a rav.’ From my perspective, if I can use my learning to help a fellow Jew, then it is my duty before HaShem to do so.”

Again, such humility! I do not take it as a coincidence that both Rav Bar Hayim and Rav Arussi are students and musmakhim of Mori Yusef Qafih z”l, who himself was known for being exceedingly humble and unimposing.

I will write more about the necessary elements of navigating life in mekoriut, but for now I would like to conclude by re-emphasizing that the movement should not promote a self-made, ruggedly-individualistic Judaism. Mekoriut is the pursuit of halakhic truths from Hazal and submitting one’s life to what that search yields. May HaShem help all of us to submit to His Torah.

בֹּאוּ, נִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה וְנִכְרָעָה נִבְרְכָה, לִפְנֵי-יְהוָה עֹשֵׂנוּ.

“Come, let us prostrate and bow, let us kneel before HaShem, our Maker.” (Tehillim 95:6)

Becoming Mekori – What is “Mesorah”?

The word “mesorah” is often used within Haredi-Hasidic circles with a meaning that closely approximates to “a generational custom from a certain locale.” In other words, a “mesorah” is an expression of Judaism that has existed for at least several generations and has been practiced by a certain group of religious Jews that either live in or hail from a certain place in the exile (e.g. Spain, Morocco, Yemen, Germany, France, etc). It is often equated to the idea of “minhag” (which will be the subject of another post, God willing), as if to say that their particular ethnic customs that originated in their particular exilic country somehow obligate them as if they are part and parcel of Torah She-be-`al Peh. Many simply view “mesorah” as being all practices and beliefs received from the previous generation, regardless of what they are. But is this truly “mesorah“?

The halakhic concept of mesorah is used primarily to refer to authoritative and authentic halakhic rulings that carry the force of law. We see this is the first mishnah of Pirkei Avot:

TEXT

משה קיבל תורה מסינייומסרה ליהושוע, ויהושוע לזקנים, וזקנים לנביאים, ונביאים מסרוה לאנשי כנסת הגדולה

TRANSLATION

“Mosheh received Torah from Sinai, and passed it onto Yehoshua – and Yehoshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets passed it onto the Men of the Great Assembly.”

So we see that mesorah is much more that simply just “what we have always done.” Rather, it is an official term referring to that which is passed on by those who have the authority to effect binding halakhic rulings (see my post “The Lawyer and the Lawmaker” for an explanation of this distinction).

In fact, this is the very definition that Rav Sa`adiah Gaon gives in his siddur. While laying out his methodology for the halakhot that he included in his prayerbook, he writes:

TEXT

ובכל מה שנכלל בשער זה לא אקבל עלי להביא ראיה על החיוב בו מן הכתוב ולא לתת הוכחה על פירושו מבעלי המסורה רל לאמר ממה שבמשנה והתלמוד אלא אביא בכל הענין הזה דבור סתמי אך מדויק בלבד

TRANSLATION

“And regarding everything included in this [halakhic] section, I will not be taking it upon myself to bring a proof for every [halakhic] obligation [stated] in it from the written Torah nor to give a verification regarding its explanation from the ba`alei mesorah, that is to say from what is in the Mishnah and the Talmud. Rather, for this entire section I will give a clear yet unsourced statement.” (Siddur RaSaG, pp.11-12)

The same view can also be extrapolated very easily from the Rambam’s introduction to the Mishneh Torah.

So, what is the true definition of “mesorah“? To be honest, it is a much larger study than what I have presented here, but it is essentially the collective halakhic rulings of the Torah She-be-`al Peh as have been passed down to us by the hakhamim. These rulings are now embodied in the works of Hazal. All other opinions subsequent to them may be useful, but they are ultimately interpretations of the mesorah, not the mesorah itself. Mesorah is not the kind of fish you eat on Shabbath, not the type of hat you wear for davening, not humrot on Pesah that were first instituted in France – it’s what is written in the Mishnah and the Talmud(s).

This understanding has far-reaching implications, but for anyone who sees the roadblock to the future of orthodox/halakhic Judaism that the popular [mis]understanding of this concept represents, it not only makes sense but is a source of hope.

Becoming Mekori – The Lawyer and the Lawmaker

In a previous post, I mentioned that in our time, as regards halakhic authority, there is only the power of the lawyer and not that of the lawmaker.

A “lawmaker” (i.e. one of the rabbis of old who sat on the Beit Din HaGadol) is one who has the legislative capability to make new laws or alter existing ones, whereas the “lawyer” (i.e. today’s rabbi, trained in the practical aspects of Jewish law) has no such legal capacity. Instead, a lawyer under any legal system is only qualified to apply the law as it stand and to work within it, at best making arguments as to why his clients should his legal position.

The Rambam

The Rambam, in his introduction to the Mishneh Torah, describes the development and institution of the halakhah from Mosheh Rabbenu (alav ha-shalom) through the Biblical period, the era of the Mishnah and Talmud, the changes that took place in the post-Talmudic, and up until his own time. The demarcation made by the Rambam between the rabbinic authorities of Talmudic times and those subsequent to them is clear and unambiguous – and is of absolutely fundamental importance.

After the court of Ravina and Rav Ashi – described by the Gemara (b.Bava Metzia 86a) as being “sof hora’ah – the end of halakhic instruction” – what we know of today as “talmud” was officially closed. The term “talmud,” as it is used by the Rambam, is not usually an exclusive term for the Babylonian Talmud. In the Mishneh Torah it is used many times as a collective term for all of the literature produced by Hazal, which includes both the Bavli and Yerushalmi, as well as the Mishnah, Tosefta, Sifra, Sifrei, and several others. So, in the view of the Rambam, the “talmud” (i.e. the official body of authoritative halakhic literature authored by Hazal) has now become the definitive standard of religious law, intended for use by subsequent generations that do not have the benefit of a Sanhedrin.

The Rambam explains the statement from Bava Metzia regarding Ravina and Rav Ashi as follows:

Ravina va-Rav Ashi hem sof hakhmei ha-talmud – Ravina and Rav Ashi are the end of the Sages of the talmud” (Mishneh Torah, Introduction i:23 – “talmud” here being used in the general sense)

He then goes on to say:

“…And the purpose of the talmudin is an explanation of the words of the Mishnah and a clarification of its depths, and also of those things which were originated by each and every beit din from the days of Rabbenu HaKadosh [i.e. Rabbi Yehudhah HaNassi] until the composition of the talmud. And from the two talmuds, and from the Tosefta, and from the Sifra and Sifrei, and from the baraita collections – from all of them – is clarified what is forbidden and what is permitted, what is tamei and what is tahor, who is liable to punishment and who is exempt, the kasher and the pasul, just as it was repeated from person to person all the way back to Mosheh Rabbenu at Sinai…”

So, according to the Rambam, the halakhah in absence of a Sanhedrin is no longer determined by courts, etc., but is determined from the works of Hazal taken in aggregate, as applied by either the individual rabbi or a local court of three judges that is duly appointed by the people. And this is not just the view of the Rambam, others also affirm this. For instance, Rav Sa`adiah Gaon states in his siddur that the “ba`alei mesorah – possessors of authoritative halakhic tradition” are those whose words are written in “the Mishnah and the Talmud” (pp. 11-12). And these are the bounds that every subsequent rabbi must work within.

The Rambam states this explicitly:

“…And every beit din that arose after the talmud in every city that issued a decree (gezerah), or issued a, ordinance (takkanah), or instituted a custom (minhag) for the inhabitants of the city, or several cities, their practical rulings did not spread to all of Israel [i.e. from a central authority] because of the distance between the places of their dwelling and the disruption of unrestricted travel on the roads. Also, such a beit din is comprised of a few individuals and the beit din ha-gadol [i.e. the Sanhedrin] comprised of seventy was disbanded several years before the composition of the talmud. Therefore, the men of one city cannot force those of another city to abide by its local custom, and they cannot say to another beit din that they should make the same decree as another beit din in his city. And also if one of the Geonim taught that the proper ruling (derekh ha-mishpat) was a certain way and it was clear to another beit din that arose after him that such a ruling was not the proper ruling (derekh ha-mishpat) as it is written in the talmud – we do not listen to the first opinion, rather we listen to the one whose opinion makes the best logical sense, whether he came first or came later…”

There are several points to note here:

  • What is written in the “talmud” (the works of Hazal) is the supreme source of halakhah since the disbanding of the Sanhedrin. The only arguments that can be acceptable are those made in effort to correctly interpret the talmud – all others are de facto invalid. The Rambam makes this explicit statement in his Pirush HaMishnayot: “The legal activity of all who arose after Ravina and Rav Ashi is confined to the understanding of the work they composed, to which it is forbidden to add and from which it is forbidden to detract.” (Introduction i:46, Qafih Edition).
  • The principle of halakhah ke-batra’ei does not apply to anyone who comes after the talmud was closed – including the Geonim.
  • The standard for all subsequent legal positions is their cogency when compared to the text of the talmud – period.

So, the position of all rabbinic persons today is solely that of an interpreter of existing laws as they were bequeathed to the Jewish world by Hazal. They can apply what is there, but they are halakhically disallowed from adding or subtracting as they see fit. Anyone familiar with the works of the Rambam (and various other Rishonim) knows that he frequently denies the authority of the Geonim to either change the law, make new legal institutions, or compose new berakhot. Instead, he rules according to the Gemara and dismisses their innovations as being essentially baseless (as did many other Rishonim). However, when the Geonim do write in effort to rightly apply the law as recorded in the talmud, the Rambam carefully considers their words.

Filling Out The Analogy

Lawyers are those who have gone to law school, studied the system of legal precedent, have graduated, passed an exam, and are technically qualified to practice law. This is essentially the position of “rabbis” today; they have attended yeshivah, been tested on certain legal subjects, and have received a certificate of their academic training. However, though technically qualified – and being, perhaps, the graduates of the most prestigious law schools – many lawyers are brutish and vile, have their own agendas, seek to circumvent the rules of the legal system, appeal to popular sentiment, and generally lack personal integrity and moral clarity. So, who ultimately decides which lawyers is qualified? The people who hire them.

If someone needs the services of a lawyer (and it is the wise thing to do so when considering any complex legal decision or action), he seeks out an honest person concerned with justice and fidelity to the law. People generally steer clear of “scheister” lawyers unless they too have a crooked personal agenda that they would like carried out on their behalf. The search for a rabbi is basically the same. There are those who are honest and true, love their fellow Jews, seek to do the will of God, and are faithful to the directives of Hazal, but there are also those who have their own agendas, are hateful, and seek to only bring honor to themselves. The decision of which to follow is a personal choice based on the moral fiber of the individual.

Lawmakers do not exist in our times. All that is available to religious Jews is a legal library containing the minutes of meetings, trial transcripts, and the dossiers of various judges that were left after the disbanding of the Sanhedrin. We have no judges today and the “jury” (following the metaphor, there is no such concept in halakhah) is comprised of the Jewish laity. Lawmakers are in a position to demand allegiance and obedience, but lawyers are not. Lawyers must be convincing in their arguments, able to display their competence when handling the law, and have a good reputation. Otherwise, they are simply not hired. And admittedly, sometimes in a pinch a bad lawyer is better than no lawyer, but overall we seek out good lawyers and ignore the rest.

Becoming Mekori – The Centrality of the Rambam and the Mishneh Torah

An indispensable work of halakhah to nearly all parts of the mekori movement is the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah (I say “nearly all” because the Talmidei HaGr”a, although being essentially mekori’im, do not usually use the Rambam for practical halakhic purposes). The Mishneh Torah is not only a foundational work halakhically, but also hashkafically. The hashkafah it contains consists mainly in setting forth the proper approach to halakhic authority and the applicability and the works of Hazal in the current post-Talmudic era.

[It is not the printed versions that generally hold sway in our movement, however, but the original text that was preserved in kitvei yad from the Yemenite Jewish community, that lack tens of thousands of errors. The edition most used and with the widest distribution is the edition by Rabbi Yohai Makbili, student of Mori Yusef Qafih z”l.]

Some of the reasons for the Rambam’s work being central, as opposed to other halakhic compendiums, are as follows:

HALAKHAH:

  • The Rambam codified the entire length and breadth of Talmudic law, unlike any other law code ever (The only possible exception to this may be the Arukh HaShulhan and Arukh HaShulhan HeAtid, but there are small sections of halakhah missing from these works as well).
  • Its language and presentation is relatively simple, easy to access, intended for use by all who possess even a basic Jewish education (i.e. Hebrew language, Mishnah, and Tanakh).
  • It is organized topically and in logical order. It also contains ta’amei ha-mitzvot and explanations that are not available in other codes, which aides in making practical halakhic determinations, since it provides the reader with the reasoning behind the law.
  • It preserves an ancient standard of deciding between various opinions expressed in the Gemara and other compilations of Hazal. The Rambam espouses the rules of the Geonim to this end and therefore avoids the confusion in halakhic methodology so prominent in later (predominantly European) commentaries on the Talmudic text.

HASHKAFAH:

  • The Rambam is very clear that the principle of Halakhah K’Batra’ei (“the decision of law is according to the latest halakhic decisors”) ended with the hatimat ha-talmud, the “close of talmudic literature.” As a result, only duly-appointed local rabbinic authority exists, and such courts only operate within the boundaries of Talmudic law.
  • The Geonim tried to innovate and change/create laws, blessings, institutions, etc. in a more or less autocratic fashion, but Rambam denies them such legislative abilities (as do other Rishonim).
  • Only the non-imposing authority, akin to that of a lawyer, remains – the authority of a  lawmaker does not (more on this in a coming post) – and the privilege to be known as “rabbi” is based on capabilities, public acknowledgement, and righteousness of middot, with their service being an “at will” decision of individuals.

Although it is deviated from halakhically, the Mishneh Torah remains the supreme working basis for mekoriut. Deviations by various mekori’im are usually based on variance in customs, changed practical realities, or different applications/interpretations of Talmudic law by other Rishonim.

Becoming Mekori – What Is It?

What?

There is a movement among observantly “orthodox” Jews to pull themselves from the mire and confusion of the current Haredi-Hasidic world – its Eurocentric customs, extreme halakhic positions (humrot), and its obsession with and elevation of medieval “kabbalah” over every other religious concern. Instead, these brave people attempt to base their religious practice on the – often simpler – written sources of Hazal, the Geonim, and the Rishonim.

This movement takes various forms, the most common being the Talmidei HaRambam (“Students of the Rambam” or “Rambamists,” i.e. those who generally confine themselves to the sole study the Mishneh Torah). Others include “Gaonists” which, although not being an official group, represent a methodology that views the Geonic period as being a “golden era” of Judaism at its literature of central authority, the Talmidei HaGr”a (“Students of the Vilna Gaon”) who follow the unique source-based approach of the Gr”a, the Baladi Yemenites, the Dar Da`im, the students of HaRav David Bar-Hayim shlit”a and Machon Shilo who generally put an emphasis on the Talmud Yerushalmi in matters relating to life and customs of Eretz Yisrael, and there are others. In general, the adherents of these movements and schools of thought fall under the general label of mekori’im (“source-based ones” or “originalists,” from the Hebrew word mekor מקור meaning “source” or “origin”).

How?

How does one become Mekori? Simply put, it is a decision to live by one’s own personal study (both independently and with qualified teachers) of the works of talmud and their direct expositors/codifiers. Hazal are viewed as the halakhic authority while all later rabbinic figures, and all exilic “minhagim,” while informative and possibly useful, may be dismissed in favor of the authentic practices expressed originally in the Talmudic literature.

Why?

Why does one become Mekori? Now that is another question altogether. In my own experience, having conversed and learned with many such individuals over the years, the question of why one chooses mekoriut never boils down a pure choice.  What I mean is that the vast majority of the time individuals are either born into it (e.g. Baladi Yemenites, Talmidei HaGr”a, Dar Da`im) or they are “forced” into it by the atmosphere of Judaism around them. Because of often extreme moral and cognitive dissonance, these individuals seek out an observant alternative to their current Jewish path. Whether it is the near-absurd complexity of halakhic methodology as it has developed, the changing realities of living in Eretz Yisrael, the refusal to accept the cult-like authority structure of the Haredi-Hasidic world, or the infusion of irrational “kabbalistic” superstitions into the most basic areas of halakhah, those who are not born into a mekori tradition are usually driven to adopt one because of some trauma – whether physical, intellectual, or emotional – that they have suffered in the mainstream orthodox world.

I have never met anyone, however, who has decided to pull out of the mainstream rut because of mere curiosity or due to personal tastes, as if they were making a choice between vanilla or chocolate. Rather, the mekori movement is a movement of Jewish social necessity, and those who flock to it alternately view mekoriut as essential to the future of the Jewish nation, and a safe place where they feel like their religion makes sense and is authentic once again.

In this blog series “Becoming Mekori,” I want to discuss some practical elements of mekoriut, the demographic of its adherents, typical misconceptions by those within and without the movement, and some of the common pitfalls it presents to those who seek to adopt it.